How Minor Problems Cascade Into Major Problems and What You Can Do About It

Anita Durairaj

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A top 50 survey of ‘first world problems’ by Business Insider lists the biggest ‘first world problem’ as a runny nose. Second place on the list was getting a call from an unknown number. In third place, it was being left on hold in the middle of a call.

We can all agree that these problems are minor and that is why they are all considered to be ‘first world problems’. They also don’t impact our lives in any deep or meaningful way. At least, that’s what most of us may think. However, there are times when minor problems do get out of hand. How does this happen? One way is through the cascade effect.

The “cascade effect” refers to a process that, once initiated, continues to lead to a chain of events that snowball and cannot be easily stopped until the case concludes. — Courtenay R. Bruce et al.

In almost all cases, the cascade effect is characterized by a sequence of events. First, it always starts off as a minor problem or incident. Second, the minor problem or incident keeps occurring repeatedly. Finally, the repeated negative incidents grow into a serious problem.

Here are 3 different real-life scenarios showing how the cascade effect can be detrimental to our lives and how and why we need to focus on resolving minor problems before they become major problems.

#1: The Cascade Effect of White Lies

Who hasn’t told a white lie? I will freely admit that I have told white lies to my coworkers. I have had my coworkers ask me what I thought of their presentation at work and I would reply “It was great” even though I thought they did a half-baked job.

In another instance, I visited a friend’s home for dinner and I was asked if I enjoyed her samosas. I just couldn’t bring myself to say that her samosas weren’t good especially after she spent hours in the kitchen, so I went along with saying “It was delicious”. There is no harm in a white lie. Or is there?

According to a scientific study in Nature Neuroscience, humans are inherently dishonest and repeated acts of dishonesty even if they are minor can lead to larger and more serious transgressions.

In the study, the scientists recorded a signal response in the brain’s amygdala to a minor transgression. Initially, they found that the signal intensity was high in response to the dishonesty. However, after repeated acts of the minor transgression, the amygdala started showing decreased signal intensity. The brain was becoming less sensitive to the dishonesty and adapting to it.

In practical terms, the study indicates that the more white lies we tell, the easier it is to continue lying. Our own brains become desensitized to the repeated lying so that we no longer feel guilty about it.

What you can do about this:

The solution is not to think of a white lie as trivial. Instead, think of a white lie as having equal gravitas as a regular lie. If you are afraid that you will hurt someone by being truthful, there are kinder and gentler ways to speak the truth. Besides, why would you want to tell a white lie when you could be found out? That would be embarrassing because your honesty and integrity will be questioned regardless of the magnitude of the lie.

#2: The Cascade Effect of Small Failures

Who hasn’t experienced a small failure? I did at work when I couldn’t turn in a project report by the deadline. It was demoralizing for me. However, that wasn’t the only small failure. Once I was giving a presentation, and I was asked to answer a question about my project. My mind went blank and I couldn’t answer it. I felt very incompetent because it was a question that a first year college student could have easily answered.

A lot of self-help articles and motivational gurus tell you to embrace failure. The notion is that failure even if it occurs repeatedly is a chance for growth. However, this is not always the case.

A research study in the journal Psychological Science states that failure is not always a learning experience. In fact, when they did the study they found out that failure threatened the egos of the participants of the study.

The participants who experienced small failures interpreted the experiences to mean that they were lacking in aptitude and uncommitted to their work. This led to a lowered expectation of success. They became unmotivated to learn from failure and were inclined to fail repeatedly. The end result was that they were setting themselves on a path for a more serious failure.

What you can do about this:

There are some useful tips from Mindtools on how to learn from small failures and stop repeating them so they don’t get out of hand. The first step is to stop using the word “failure” and instead think of the incident as a mistake. Next follow these sequence of steps to tackle the mistake:

  1. Admit that you made the mistake and take ownership of it.
  2. Reframe or rethink the mistake from a different angle so that it becomes a positive learning experience.
  3. Analyze or study the mistake so you discover what exactly went wrong.
  4. Write out an action plan or goals detailing the exact steps you will take to prevent the mistake from reoccurring.
  5. Review your course of action and hold yourself accountable or have someone else hold you accountable.

#3: The Cascade Effect of Small Stressors

Who hasn’t experienced stress at some point in their lives? Most of the time, we experience small stressors such as our daily commute to work, being stuck in traffic jams, or listening to negative news in the media.

For me, the major small stressor in my life is wanting to tick off all the boxes on my to-do list and getting annoyed when it becomes impossible. Usually after I get annoyed, I just brush it off until it happens again the next day. Like most people, I don’t really pay much attention to small stressors.

Research on stress response shows that the brain plays a critical role in how we react to stress. It initiates a cascade of events resulting in the production of steroid hormones. One of these steroid hormones is cortisol which is also known as the “stress hormone”.

During stress, the production of cortisol is increased and this helps with regulating the immune system and reducing the chances of inflammation. This helps us to manage stress. However, the scenario becomes different when we repeatedly encounter stress day in and day out.

Small stressors that repeatedly occur over time can lead to chronic stress conditions and the body ends up over-reacting. The cortisol is no longer effective because it is continuously activated by stress. The regulation of the immune system is then disrupted and inflammation is no longer controlled.

The effects of chronic stress should not be underestimated. According to the American Psychological Association, it can have an insidious effect on all the major systems of the body. The result is physical and mental health conditions such as chronic fatigue, diabetes, obesity, depression, and immune disorders.

What you can do about this:

You have to manage and deal with small stressors before it becomes a chronic stress condition. Fortunately, there is a lot of information and tips on how to manage stress.

The generic advice for dealing with stress is to exercise, eat and sleep well, take breaks, be mindful, and limit smoking and drinking. You should do all of this, but there are also immediate steps you can take as soon as you encounter a stressor.

In the guide book How to Manage and Reduce Stress by the UK’s Mental Health Condition, there are 3 thought processes you can take when you think you are stressed.

  1. Recognize that you are stressed by connecting any mental and physical symptoms you are feeling to the stressor.
  2. Identify the reason for the stress and determine if there is anything you can do about it. If there is a solution, get rid of the source of the stress. On the other hand if there are no solutions, try to let go and release your worries.
  3. Review your lifestyle to determine how you can reduce stress in your life. Follow the advice for healthy eating, exercise, and sleep. Alternatively, you might need to seek help or slow down in your life.

Conclusion

It is dangerous to think that all minor problems are innocuous. We often think minor problems will remain minor so we don’t pay as much attention to it or figure out ways to solve the problem.

The cascade effect is evidence that minor problems can become major problems. The 3 different scenarios described in this article are just examples of how and why we need to become aware of the cascade effect in our lives. The problem always starts out minor, then it keeps reoccurring until it snowballs, or until we make a major mistake.

The common element is that the cascade effect arising from minor problems is overall detrimental to our health and well being. The only solution is to nip the problem in the bud. Tackle the problem early while it is still in the minor stage and there will be a good chance you won’t be repeating or making major mistakes in life.

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